July 30 is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. As practically the entire world grapples with the problem of human trafficking in either being a source, destination or a transit, India takes another bold step to fight this organised crime from all ends. While the Lok Sabha passed one of the most holistic and comprehensive Anti Trafficking bill on July 26, 2018, it still has to be passed in Rajya Sabha. The bill has generated a lot of debate from various quarters including some from the anti-trafficking movement itself. If I were to make a broad profile of the people who have opposed the bill, what stands out for me is that a whole lot of people who have never rescued a trafficked person, never have witnessed the journey of a victim to become a survivor and never have ever taken the entire responsibility of ensuring justice for a single victim are the ones opposing it.
As I sit here and write this article, I am also pre-occupied with a series of rescues happening very close to my office in a place called Yadadri. Till now 15 children have been rescued all of them aged 4 yrs to 11yrs. All of them either sold by parents or kidnapped by traffickers. They were found in brothels run by ‘Dommara’ women, a community that practices prostitution as a traditional livelihood. Interestingly these women were sending their own children to good private schools and were grooming these kidnapped or bought children for commercial sexual exploitation or prostitution. My fingers stumble and I am numbed for a moment as I see pictures of these little ones on my Whatsapp. For a minute I give up on writing this piece, too disturbed.
Can anybody fathom or even in their wildest imagination understand what these children have gone through. My counsellors tell me there are burn and scratch marks all over their bodies. One of the traffickers confessed that they would give hormonal injections of ‘estrogen’ and oxytocin to preempt early maturity. Does anybody understand how many months or years it will take to actually heal their emotional scars?
I cannot forget another case that I dealt with last year. Two children aged 8 yrs and 11yrs were being sexually exploited for commercial purposes by their own mother. Shockingly, the children went to a normal school in the daytime and in the evening they were forced to have sex with one or two male contacts of the mother. The father was the silent supporter and the 14yr old brother an abettor. Seemingly a nice middle-class family! The class teacher who suspected of child sexual abuse and informed us did not realise that it was actually a case of sex trafficking. It is a year now, both the children even with the best care are traumatised and suffer from serious psychological issues. The younger one keeps hurting herself with safety pins and yearns to see her father.
Where do we send these children?
After the Muzaffarnagar case wherein girl children in a Shelter Home were found to be sexually exploited, all and sundry now brand all shelter homes as ‘bad’ and ‘exploitative’. Some even view shelter homes/safe homes as a protectionist approach. But what is the way out? Send all the children back to an exploitative environment?
This is not just about children, but any human being, including an adult who is trafficked for an exploitative purpose, goes through all this and more. I give you examples of sex trafficking as that is the domain I have been working in. My colleagues who work on other forms of trafficking can give you millions of examples of torture and pain which most of us can hardly imagine.
If we can understand the process of trafficking and the acute damage it causes in the lives of the victims, it is easier to understand the role of victim-services including safe homes and institutions in the larger goal of social reintegration. The problem with all of us is that we have never ever thought of this problem from the victim’s perspective.
What is the impact of trafficking on the body, mind and spirit of the human being who is a victim? Can just removing persons from an exploitative space ensure that they are psychologically healed, physically recovered, emotionally equipped and cerebrally prepared to start life afresh? Is there something called as ‘choice’ that they can exercise while being exploited or immediately after being removed from places of exploitation. What is the journey of a person from being a victim to become a survivor? What are the processes and support system that is required to facilitate this journey?
Only if we can apply our mind from a victim-centric perspective we will able to appreciate the current Trafficking of Persons(Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill 2018.
I think this is perhaps the most victim-centric piece of draft legislation that takes into account the multitude of damages caused to a person who is subjected to trafficking and puts in place not only an institutional system to provide a range of victim-services but also puts in a robust mechanism to fight the organised crime of human trafficking. At the end of the day, ‘justice’ is the only way that a survivor of trafficking finds ‘closure’.
For many who are opposing this Bill on presumptions and assumptions fearing for their livelihood, I want to just tell them lives of millions of children is at stake. While they worry about imaginary crises, we are living with the day-to-day human-made tragedy of hundreds of lives lost in sex slavery.
In my mind, there is no second thought about the necessity of the Anti Trafficking Bill, but for all of you out there who are confused (as so many mixed messages are floating around), here are 10 reasons why I think the ‘Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection & Rehabilitation) Bill should be passed:
- It is comprehensive as it addresses gaps that so far remained unaddressed. It focuses on the prevention of trafficking, time-bound trial, repatriation, relief, rehabilitation, protection of victims, witnesses, complainants and more. Not only is it about criminalising and widening the ambit of penal law, but also contains provisions for prevention, protection and rehabilitation of victims.
- All those components that are not covered in IPC Section 370, such as buying and selling human beings, begging, forced marriage, trafficking by administering chemical substance or hormones to make the victims attain early sexual maturity, trafficking by encouraging or abetting any person to migrate illegally into India or Indians to some other country, etc. is covered.
- An institutional framework is legally mandated in the form of “National Anti Trafficking Bureau” which will be located in National Investigating Agency and will be responsible for all inter-state and cross-border cases of trafficking. This is perhaps the first step of its kind to fight the organised crime of human trafficking in an organised manner.
- A dedicated Rehabilitation Fund is set up which will ensure legal assistance and support. Counsellors, translators, social workers, mental health professionals are available to the victims for care and protection at the cost of the state. The rehabilitation measures are not merely restricted to placing victims in Rehabilitation homes but extend to providing physical, psychological and social support, including access to education, skill development, physical and mental health care, legal aid etc. The rehabilitation of the victim is not contingent on the conviction of the offender.
- For the first time victim protection and witness protection is part of a legal document (Sec. 52).
- All the stakeholders and duty bearers (law enforcers, service providers etc.) are made accountable so that no victim is subjected to secondary victimisation.
- The criminal syndicate and the proceeds from the crime will be systematically targeted and there will be a definite dent in the organised criminal gangs.
- The structural framework, to both, tackle the crime or to provide protection to the victims, is from the national level to the local level.
- ‘Exploitation’ is the core component to identify the crime. Anyone rescued in a place of exploitation who is able to convince the judicial officer that he/she was not exploited and is not speaking under duress will be released immediately.
- The victims (adult or children) are entitled to interim relief within 60 days of charge sheet being filed; this is for the first time that such a legal mandate is provided for the welfare of the victim. Till date, as a State Scheme, only two states, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have given interim relief to victims of trafficking
Trafficking of persons is not an intellectual debate or a political agenda; it is about the millions of people whose bodies, mind and spirit are destroyed in this trade of human misery. They cannot form unions or become a powerful lobby as their voices are submerged and crushed under the weight of social stigma and ostracisation. So those of us who have taken the responsibility of fighting this war on behalf of these victims and survivors, it is our duty to ensure that their voices are heard loud and clear. I urge all concerned citizens to understand the need for such a legislation and use their good offices to influence our temple of democracy, the parliament, to pass this Bill. Not that all problems will be solved overnight with this legislation, but at least it will be one step towards it.
The writer runs an NGO, Prajwala and has saved over 17,000 trafficking victims.